It’s not that unusual to have a houseful the day AFTER Christmas. The solution, as it has been for 10 centuries, is — envelope, please — stew.
I know the feeling. The gifts are given, the turkey chewed to the bones and the guests chatting around the living room.
Suddenly, without any prodding, Auntie and Unkie from Utah decide to stay for “one more day.” They’re great folks, but ...
Post-Christmas meals are a bailout, a recovery period from the big meal. Nobody really expects to have Steak Diane the day after Christmas. More like mac and cheese will be on the menu. Then again, nobody expects more company.
Wrong. I asked around and discovered that a lot of you are expecting company and anticipating another big day of cooking. Families are spread around the country, requiring serious holiday scheduling. It’s not that unusual to have a houseful the day AFTER Christmas.
Just what we need, another family banquet. There’s only one thing I’d consider serving. Not pizza. Not turkey salad. No pasta and sauce. The solution, as it has been for 10 centuries, is — envelope, please — stew.
I know the recipe by heart. Stew’s beauty is, you never need to grocery-shop it. It can be just about anything you have in the fridge — a real larder cleaner — and always is good.
It’s also the ultimate comfort food, cheaply and easily made, almost foolproof and happily digested after the holiday meal.
That’s the reason stew has been with us for 20 centuries. Our ancestors made it even before pots and pans. They (get this) boiled it in animal stomachs.
The result is that every food culture on the planet has a few legendary stews to their credit. The official stew list counts 100 named ones, from the steamy Baeckeoof potato stew of Alsace to the not-so-famous Waterzooi fish stew of Flanders.
American beef stew is closely related to the British Karelian hot pot, which is the national dish of Finland but began in eastern Russia. Stew recipes obviously get passed around.
The No. 1 problem Americans suffer is the gravy — too thin, too thick, too lumpy. We can solve that in a worry-free way.
My beef stew is always different, depending on what I have on hand, so I haven’t bothered to write it down. The basics always are the same. I could do it in my pajamas with my eyes closed.
The meat can be pork, beef or veal or any combination. Cheap is absolutely fine, even preferred. The process of stewing could tenderize shoe leather. You’ll find beef already chunked, labeled “stew meat.” This is OK, but not mandatory. You could cut up any old chuck roast and get the same.
I use fresh vegetables, but canned goods or frozen will work. Just pour them in with 40 minutes to go.
The one item all stews have in common is fresh onion chunks. These morsels disappear on simmering, but their flavor is melds the gravy into the best part of the meal.
The other must for me is carrots. Those baby ones are perfect right out of the bag. Oh, potatoes too, but here we have a decision.
If you’re planning on freezing stew, potatoes will turn grainy. Sub kohlrabi for the spuds. They work perfectly.
Remember: Stew flavor improves sitting in the fridge for a day.
American stew often is not highly flavored. That makes it popular with kids. Mine has an herbal punch from basil, bay leaves, garlic and Worcestershire sauce. The sauce you can save to serve on the side at the table.
The liquid is another question. Red wine makes a rich and tangy gravy. Water does not alter the beef and vegetable flavors. Beef broth is my favorite, underscoring the beef and complementary to the other stuff.
So away we go:
2 pounds, beef, veal, lamb, rabbit, pork loin or a combination
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons flour (more or less)
3 cups water, red wine, beef broth or a combination
1 tablespoon dried basil
1 cup each carrots, celery, onion
1 cup potatoes or kohlrabi, peeled, bite-size pieces
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
Cut the meat into bite-size pieces, all about the same size (to cook evenly). Season with salt and pepper.
Brown the meat, onion and garlic in the oil, turning often, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle meat and onions with 2 tablespoons flour. Add more oil if needed. Scrape while cooking another 3 minutes. Up heat and add liquid and basil. Mix thoroughly to dissolve the flour. Add vegetables and cover. Gently simmer for 90 minutes. Check every 15 minutes for sticking.
Adjust the gravy — more liquid if it’s too thick, a tablespoon of flour in 1/4 cup liquid if too thin. If the meat is not fork-tender, continue cooking.
Season with Worcestershire just before serving in soup bowls.
Now we have stew, a beautiful, aromatic appetite pleaser if anything is. We have one more step:
SOUR CREAM BISCUITS
2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup melted butter
Sift dry ingredients. Mix with sour cream and milk to the consistency of a roll dough, adding milk if too stiff. Turn onto lightly floured board. Knead lightly for 3 minutes.
Pat into sheet 1/2-inch thick. Cut with floured cutter. Place on a greased baking sheet and bake at 400 degrees for 5 minutes. Biscuits are done when browned on top. Serve with butter and apple butter. 12 servings.
Note: An American tradition is to place biscuit halves in the serving bowls and ladle the stew over them. For a stew pie, roll out the dough to 1/2 inch and cut to fit on top of stew pot. Or, place cut biscuit dough on top of stew. Bake at 400 degrees for 15 minutes. or until browned. Serves 8.